The significance of Sao Joao
By Cecil Pinto

Today, 24th of June, is when we celebrate the feast of Saint John the
Baptist. A good time as ever for me to clear a bit of confusion in the
minds of tourists, and the rapidly burgeoning throng of nouveau Goans.
Yes, the way the festival is celebrated in Siolim is unique to that
village only. Competitive boat and flower crown festivals,
carnival-esque costumes and pageantry, are not witnessed all over Goa.
In other Goan villages we (a) offer thanksgiving prayers for rain and
wellbeing  (b) have coconut breaking competitions (c) drink a lot of
Caju Feni (d) jump into wells with or without floral crowns (e) eat a
lot of mangos, pineapples, jackfruits etc offered by the fresh
sons-in-law of the locality (f) drink more Caju Feni (g) jump into
more wells, rivulets and streams.

A little bit first about John the Baptist who is probably the most
celebrated saint in the pantheon of Christian saints. The
circumstances of his birth and death are truly dramatic. The angel
Gabriel appeared to Zachary and informed him that his barren wife
Elizabeth was now pregnant with a son who he should name John (which
means God's Gift – logically then so hundreds of cars and houses in
Goa can just be renamed "John"!). Zachary exclaimed, "Don't kid me
maaan!" and for this doubting attitude was struck dumb by Gabriel
until John was born and circumcised. In the sixth month of Elizabeth's
pregnancy her cousin Mary visited her and little unborn John jumped
with joy in his mother's womb knowing that Jesus Christ was near - or
something to that effect.

When we Goans jump in wells on 24th June it is that womb jump we are
commemorating. The other similarity, of baptizing by submersion in
water, is just a happy coincidence. My research shows that this
jumping in wells to celebrate the feast of Sao Joao is uniquely Goan.

Incidentally St. John is not the first biblical baby to be jumping
around in the womb. In Genesis 25:22, poor Rebekah is carrying twins,
Esau and Jacob, who are constantly quarreling in the womb.

Now John the Baptist was quite a character. Described in the Bible as
being thin as a reed and wearing a garment of camel's hair and a
leather girdle about his loins, he ate locusts and wild honey. Wow!
Spectacular as he was though, St. John was only the precursor of
Jesus. In his own words (almost), "There shall come one mightier than
I, the velcro of whose shoes I am not worthy to unfasten. He shall in
fact give true meaning to the phrase 'baptism by fire', especially if
you're planning a Christening Party with professional catering and
expensive takeaways!"

St. John also said, "I am not Christ, but that I am sent before him.
He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the
bridegroom, who standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth with joy because
of the bridegroom's voice. This my joy, therefore, is fulfilled. He
must increase, but I must decrease." Why I mention this is to try and
provide a biblical reference to why we in Goa bum the newly wed grooms
(janvoi) into giving us food and booze on Sao Joao day. We all become
friends of the bridegroom in a manner of speaking.

Incidentally John the Baptist (Yahya in Arabic) is described in the
Koran (Surah 19: 7-12) as a 'Prophet of the Righteous' coming 'to
confirm a word from Allah" (Surah 3:39)

Fast forward to St. John's macabre death. He had reproved King Herod
for divorcing his own wife (Phasaelis) and taking his brother Philip's
wife Herodias. On Herod's birthday Herodias' daughter, the sexy
Salome, performed a vampy item number dance that got our drunken Herod
excited enough to promise her anything she desired. Her mother told
Salome to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter, which she
did.  Her wish was reluctantly granted by Herod, who must surely have
had a massive hangover the next day.

Today the location of St. John's severed head (and other body parts
but mostly the head) is the subject of much legend and lore. Findings
have been reported all over the world and there are at least a dozen
shrines which purport to have the actual head. John the Baptist's
martyrdom is celebrated on 29th August. On the night of  23rd June
here in Goa effigies of Judas are displayed and then burnt. Probably a
case of mistaken identity – it should have been effigies of King

Some explanation required here about dates. Most festivities in Europe
while seemingly celebrating the feast of St. John on 24th June are
actually a continuation of pagan festivals celebrating the midsummer
solstice on 21st June. The difference in dates is because of the
difference between the earlier Julian (365.25 days) and the later
Gregorian (365.2422 days) calendar. Another explanation is that, since
John was exactly six months older than Jesus then as soon as Christmas
was established as being on December 25th (in the 5th century)
automatically June 24th was assigned to St. John. To answer the
obvious question why 24th and not 25th I will have to explain the
Roman way of counting and 'kalends' and stuff which is quite

Let's look at celebrations world wide…

In Oporto in Portugal St John's is a festival that is lived to the
full in the streets, where most anything is permitted. People carry a
leek with them (or a little plastic hammer), which they use to bang
their neighbours over the head for good luck. There is also dancing,
while the highlight of the night is the firework display over the
River Douro. Across the country the traditional midsummer bonfire is
also built and, following an ancient pagan tradition, revelers try to
jump over the bonfire, this in order to gain protection during the
rest of the year.

These bonfires are true of most of Europe.

In Denmark Sankt Hans aften (St. John's Eve) is celebrated on the 23rd
June evening  since the times of the Vikings, by visiting healing
water sources and making a large bonfire to ward away evil spirits.
Today the water source tradition is gone. Bonfires on the beach,
speeches, picnics and songs are traditional.

In Finland before 1316, the summer solstice was called Ukon juhla,
after an old Finnish god Ukko. In Karelia, people had many bonfires
side by side, the biggest of which was called Ukko-kokko (the "bonfire
of Ukko"). At present, the midsummer holiday is known as Juhannus and
is the year's most notable occasion for drunkenness and revelry.

When Finland was Christianized, the holiday was named after John the
Baptist (Johannes) in order to give a Christian meaning to the pagan
holiday. The traditions, however, remain quite unchanged and survive
in modern-day Finland, although they have lost their original
purposes. In folk magic, still well known but no longer seriously
practiced, midsummer was a very potent night and the time for many
small rituals, mostly for young maidens seeking suitors. A great many
people get very drunk and happy. It is also an occasion when many
people look for a relationship, often a rather short one. This is a
beginning to sound like a typical Goan dine and dance event!

Ivan Kupala was the old Russian name for John the Baptist. Up to the
present day, the Russian Midsummer Night (or Ivan's Day) is known as
one of the most expressive Russian folk and pagan holidays. Many rites
of this holiday are connected with water, fertility and auto
purification. The girls, for example, would float their flower
garlands on the water of rivers and tell their fortunes from their
movement. Maybe the Siolim boat festival also has such pagan roots.

In Brazil St. John festivities, like during Carnival, involve
costume-wearing, dancing, heavy drinking, and visual spectacles
(bonfires, fireworks display, and folk dancing). Two northeastern
towns in particular have competed with each other for the title of
"Biggest Saint John Festival in the World", namely Caruaru (in the
state of Pernambuco), and Campina Grande, in Paraíba.

Another interesting thing about the feast of St. John: the Breviary's
hymn for this day, Ut queant laxis - the hymn sung or recited during
the blessing of the bonfire - is the source of our names of musical
notes -- Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do. The hymn, attributed to
Paulus Diaconus (Paul the Deacon, ca. A.D. 720-799), was noted by a
monk to rise one note in the diatonic C-Scale with each verse. The
syllables sung at each rise in pitch give us the names of our notes
(the "Ut" was later changed to "Do" for easier pronunciation):
"Ut queant laxis
Resonare fibris
Mira gestorum
Famuli tuorum,
Solve polluti
Labii reatum, Sanc
Te Ioannes"

Coming back to the way the feast of Sao Joao is celebrated in Siolim.
I repeat, this is not typical of the rest of Goa. It is a modern
created avatar of an earlier boat festival and has elements included
to make it viewer friendly to attract spectators. Somewhat like the
modern version of the Goan Carnival, a creation for tourists. The true
Goan Sao Joao participatory celebrations take place in each ward in
every village, including Siolim. These include religious prayers and
hymns and sometimes even sacred invocations and rituals unique to each
ward/village. If you do get a chance to observe please maintain the
required decorum, until the revelry starts. Or else just go to the
Siolim river, or better still jump into your hotel swimming pool.

An edited version of this article appeared in Gomantak Times dated
24th June 2008

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